Quest for Fire: The Power of a Single Flame

When I was a little boy, my parents and I lived off the grid for a year or so while they built our new house in the forest. We heated with wood and used kerosene lanterns for light. We listened to “Prairie Home Companion” on a battery-operated AM radio. 

I can remember staring at the candles at night and looking up to watch the flickering shadows on the wooden beams of the ceiling. There was, and is, something so beautiful, calming, and ancient about the light of a flame.

When I began meditating and exploring yoga in my twenties, I eventually discovered candle meditation. Candle meditation is a form of tratak, which means “to look or gaze.” Tratak can be practiced on any object—the ocean, a tree, a cloud—but I find a candle to be one of my favorite focal points.  

Candle focus is special because fire has a unique effect on the mind. For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors gazed at fire every single night, sometimes for hours, while preparing to sleep. Gazing at fire is mesmerizing and trance inducing. When we gaze at a flickering flame, our brain begins to shift out of beta brainwave state, which is associated with thinking and alertness, into alpha brainwave state, which corresponds to a relaxed and creative state of mind. Alpha brainwaves then become theta brainwaves, which are associated with meditation, intuition, and the unconscious. When we shift out of our beta/monkey-mind activity and into alpha and theta, the mind becomes relaxed, open, and receptive.

In our world, fire has been replaced with televisions, smartphones, and computer screens; in a few years, we could be surrounded by three-dimensional projections that we can interact with through goggles or other technology. The difference between fire and screens is that, when fire is our focus, the mind is able to relax and process unintegrated content. Flickering screens, on the other hand, move us into a receptive space and then project images into our minds when they are most vulnerable and open. 

During the winter months, candle focus can be a particularly powerful practice. As the days grow shorter and the darkness deepens, meditating with a candle can be both soothing and inspiring.  You might want to wrap yourself up in a blanket or cloak, turn out all the lights, and settle onto your cushion. The candle is a presence of its own, and you may feel the element of fire almost as a living, breathing companion as you drop into your meditation. 

Ayurveda teaches us that the senses literally ingest everything that they take in during the day. All the sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, and sights are food for the senses and, if we wish to remain in balance, we need to take time to let them rest and restore. Around the winter holidays especially, when there is so much talk of peace—yet, often, so little peace to be found—sitting with a candle can help refresh the eyes and settle the nervous system.

My family lives in a house with electricity, but I will often turn off all the lights and use candles instead, because the quality of the light is so peaceful and comforting. The light of a candle, no matter how small, can warm the long winter nights and support you in accessing deeper states of tranquility and contemplation. 

Micah Mortali is lead Kripalu faculty, the Founder of the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership and author of Rewilding.

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